Saturday 25 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Midsummer at the Hub, or, A Fine Romance

Regular readers will know that I have concerns about the increasing Scottish content of a Festival that calls itself International. They will also know that I do not think this issue is being discussed with the critical rigour it deserves by the professional Scottish arts press. A result of these twin points is that I tend these days to arrive at performances in this strand at the Festival in a not particularly friendly mood. Last night this was compounded by the fact that I'd booked to see this at 10pm, I'd already seen three shows earlier in the day, and I was feeling pretty tired. It speaks very well for this show that it pretty much converted me.

David Greig and Gordon McIntyre's play with songs tells the story of the meeting of Bob (Henry Pettigrew) and Helena (Sarah Higgins) in an Edinburgh pub on Midsummer weekend. For this version (the show was originally at the Traverse in 2008) it has apparently been reframed into a four hander with the narrative of the original meeting now mediated through the recollections of it and the stories they tell about it of an older Helena (Eileen Nicholas) and Bob (Benny Young).

There are many lovely aspects to this show. It's a love letter to Edinburgh - if you know the city well you'll take delight in spotting locations and particular aspects of city life (just occasionally this is carried to an extreme - the gag about the one o'clock gun - but the show does it with enough charm that I forgave). It's a love story - it could topple over into cliche given the misfit nature of the couple - but again it finds the heart to make the viewer believe. There's a particularly moving sequence when the pair are walking through Princes Street Gardens and finding how many things they agree on and the show is utterly believable in capturing that moment of special connection. As an aside, it's worth noting that it also somehow convinced me, despite limited set, that they were in the Gardens - though here I think it probably helps if you know the city - the show gives the imagination just that little push, and it does the rest.

It's also a show about how we choose to remember things. Older Bob and Helena often argue about what the true events actually were and at times seem far apart, and as if they don't understand why each of them remembers it the way that they do. One of the special powers of the show is the way it delicately unpacks that until the reasons for those differences are clearer but also, I felt, their older selves understand each other better - the bond holds.

The show is often very funny. I particularly remember an opening lyric "If my hangover were a country it would be Belgium", and the idea of a small time Edinburgh crook trying to dispose of a pink convertible car. On occasion I did feel Grieg's script was overwritten - layering up the complex analysis of particular situations beyond what they really require. It seemed to me that something in him was fighting against the straightforward beauty of the show - couldn't accept that it doesn't need to be more than it is. Fortunately, that beauty wins out more often than not.

The four ensemble members all give excellent performances supported by a fine band led by Pete Harvey, with Reuben Joseph also giving a fine turn as Helena's nephew Brendan. Kate Hewitt's direction and Jenny Ogilivie's movement makes effective use of the levels of the Hub main hall moving the players up and down ladders and round and about the audience - this is an occasion when playing very nearly in the round works beautifully. There's some lovely touches to Cecile Tremolieres's design - the appearance of a slogan in particular - another perfectly judged wry joke.

This clearly is a modern Scottish classic. It is also refreshing to see a Scottish play which has nothing to do with nationalism or the state of the nation, but is simply about people one can imagine meeting on the streets or in the pubs of this Scottish city, and about whom one comes to care.

A few tickets apparently remain for performances this weekend. I highly recommend catching this. What a pity it's the dull Prisoner heading to London and not this charming, moving, funny show.

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